The Elephant in the Room

By Vanessa Generaux | Guest Columnist

This column features ethics scenarios and issues that may affect technical communicators in the many aspects of their jobs. If you have a possible solution to a scenario, your own case, or feedback in general, please contact column editor Russell Willerton at

This fictional case depicts the ethical issues involved with creating messages for an audience with cultural sensitivities very different from the writer’s native culture. The case ends with some ethical perspectives that may be useful; certainly other ethical perspectives apply to the case as well.

As is the tradition with this column, we welcome and encourage your responses. Let us know your answers to the questions we’ve posed, your thoughts on the ethical situations that technical communicators face, or send us your own ethics cases or column ideas. Please send your responses to Responses may appear in an upcoming issue of Intercom as space permits.

Jim Bonner recently started working for Mark-It Company as a technical communicator. He specializes in video production and writing scripts for commercial advertising. Jim works with other technical colleagues, such as videographers and writers, to produce scripts for European products being launched in the United States. Although Mark-It Company is based in the United States, they work with many large companies to develop product marketing commercials all around the globe. Jim has been given his first opportunity to work in India with translators to help launch a new product for a foot cream company. Jim gladly accepts the job offer and flies over to India with the team to start work on the new project.

Currently, Jim and his team manager Korbin Joyner are working in New Delhi, India, and getting ready to launch a commercial for a new beauty cream. Jim has worked with Korbin several times on various product campaigns, and they have become friends outside of work. They meet at the television network studio to go over details of the commercial availability and other preliminary paperwork of the operation. After the meeting, Jim and Korbin brainstorm a few ideas to meet the needs of the beauty cream company and how they will be able to translate the main idea of the commercial across the language barrier. Korbin already has video clips from the U.S. version to use and just needs to translate the script for airing the following week. If he is successful running the project, he could be promoted to senior executive at Mark-It.

Korbin and Jim speak only a few phrases in Hindi (India’s most widely spoken language), but neither is fluent in the language into which the script will be translated. They rely heavily on the translator working with the team, Rajiv Kemper. Rajiv, born and raised in a nearby district, has a good understanding of English from studying abroad in college. However, translating can be difficult when addressing a new audience. It is a challenge to render the meaning for the public in the way that the foot cream company would like. While reviewing the script to make the best translation, Rajiv frequently consults Jim about any nuances that may hinder or improve understanding. The script is relatively short, and he finalizes minimal changes for the voice actor. Once the script is in confirmed, they can then start the editing process with the rest of the team.

The team works diligently all week to get the new voiceover matched to the video. Jim keeps track of the timing, and checks with Rajiv about the translation one more time. Upon viewing the commercial for the first time, Rajiv’s jaw drops. The meeting that Rajiv had attended mainly reviewed the specifics of time, legal documents, and pricing for air time on the network, and did not go over the details of the video clips. During the week, Rajiv and Jim had reviewed translation on paper, and Rajiv hadn’t seen the footage that would be used on screen. Trying to keep his panic under wraps, he asked Jim, “Could I speak with you regarding the video?” They stepped outside the video editing room so that Rajiv could explain his unrest.

Rajiv did his best to keep his composure while he illustrated to Jim the potential issues of the video. Rajiv recaps the video to Jim to make sure he is getting the meaning correct. The video showed a woman putting cream on her face and hands, then putting on shoes and going out for the evening. A man enters the scene outside her home and greets the woman. He is captivated by her and uses his left hand to brush a hair away from her face, tucking it behind her ear in a flirtatious way. The video then cuts to a picture of the product and the statement about radiating beauty that is “so soft you can’t wait to touch it.” The man reaches for the woman’s hands; the video shows they are not wearing wedding rings, nor is the woman wearing necklaces or bracelets common among married women. He then gives her a short kiss as the music fades out.

Jim says, “This is what we have been working on all week. Is there a problem?” Rajiv explains that in Indian culture, the left hand is frequently viewed as unclean and inauspicious. It is also considered offensive for individuals to touch one another if they are not wed or in the family circle. Finally, public displays of affection are strongly discouraged. After listening to Rajiv’s explanation of the cultural differences, Jim immediately went to the station to explain everything to Korbin. Jim has not had to face a cultural difference like this before and has only assisted in adapting commercials for American audiences in the past.

Korbin, after listening to Jim describe the ways the video would be considered offensive, immediately cut Jim off from his protests. Korbin had been given the task of recreating the commercial and broadcasting it in India, which is what he intended to do. Korbin understood that there were different cultural mannerisms that could be a hindrance to the project, but felt his duty was to the company and to producing results. Jim tried to explain the importance of the matter several times, but Korbin brushed him off stating, “We were sent here to translate and get the commercial to air…. Whatever happens next is up to the company.”


Jim is at a loss, and even worse is that he knows Korbin, his manager and friend, could get in trouble if they do not change the commercial before broadcasting it. What should Jim do to get through to Korbin? What could happen to a company that plays an offensive commercial? Should Jim contact the main branch and go above Korbin’s authority? How can Jim’s technical communication skills help him and his team in this situation?

Ethical Theories that Can Apply to this Scenario:

Utilitarian: With the new information brought to light about the cultural differences and issues with the video, Korbin knows that there will be major repercussions. Korbin neglected to do research on the culture and assumed the crossover from American culture to Indian culture would be easy. Now that time is short, he knows that if the video airs on the Indian television station, it could mean offending a broad audience. But if the video doesn’t air on time, Korbin will have cost the company a lot of time and money.

Dialogic approach: In this scenario, Korbin is in charge of the project and thinks that everything has been going to plan. However, approached with this new information, he denies Jim’s information on the audience and their perspectives. Instead of reasoning, he cuts Jim off, not allowing Jim to give advice or options on how to tackle the issue.

Kant’s categorical imperative: Kant says no person should use another as a means to an end. Without expecting anything in return, we should treat others as we want to be treated.

Four Moralities (from Johannesen, Valde, and Whedbee): Korbin does not invoke the habit of search in this scenario; otherwise, he would have done a bit more checking about the cultural disconnect that the video could have posed. He also violates preferences of public versus private issues. Korbin faces hard facts that could make the commercial flop. However, he also wants to air the commercial to finish the project. Finally, he also denies the arguments Jim is trying to address by not showing the habit of respect for dissent, and will not allow for any compromise. These issues will affect his interpersonal relationship with Jim, as well as his position at Mark-It Company.

Further Reading

Morrison, Terri, and Wayne A. Conway. Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands. 2d ed.Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2006.

Johannesen, Richard L., Kathleen S. Valde, and Karen E. Whedbee. Ethics in Human Communication. 6th ed. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press Inc., 2008.

VANESSA GENERAUX ( resides in Boise, Idaho, and recently completed her MA in technical communication at Boise State University. She’s passionate about technical communication, open educational resources, and cross-cultural communication. In her spare time, she enjoys a good science-fiction book, video games, and hangs out with her cat, Mavis.

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